“A Photographic Memory of Language…”

Photo by Vera Ja on Unsplash

One day, as my family sat around the dining room table discussing all things Tourette, the subject of language and how those in my family with TS view language came up — specifically their need for language to be precise.

I recounted one of many stories in which I’d changed a word or hadn’t been quite precise enough and the results had been…less than positive. In this particular instance, my then 12-year-old son and I had taken our dog to a trainer in hopes of taming the pup’s hyperactive behavior. The trainer explained that we needed to “run him at least 20 minutes a day” to burn off some of his energy. Upon returning home, I shared with my husband how the training session had gone and told him that the trainer recommended we exercise the dog at least 20 minutes a day. Switching out the word “run” for “exercise” was all it took and for the next hour we had an angry, frustrated and raging child who actually accused me of lying. My son genuinely couldn’t understand why I wasn’t being precise.

My dad, upon hearing this story, nodded his head in understanding and familiarity. After a moment of silence he said, “You know, it’s like individuals who have Tourette Syndrome have a photographic memory of language.”

I couldn’t help but agree. My dad’s theory summed up what our family experienced on a near-daily basis. It doesn’t stop there, though. Those who have OCD within Tourette can have what educator and author Susan Conners refers to as an “obsessive sense of justice.”

In our home, we see this injected into nearly every verbal interaction. If we say we’re going to do something, we’d best stick to those words or there will be consequences. As an example, if we suggest we’d like go outside at noon or have chicken for dinner, we have to actually do those things. If we don’t and our child sees the clock strike 12:01 and we’re still inside or finds the chicken in the freezer instead of thawing, meltdowns are sure to follow and those usually start with “but you said!!!

This doesn’t just affect our home life. School issues involving teachers are a regular occurrence. There have been countless afternoons when I picked up our eldest from school only to find him simmering and upset over the words an instructor used during a class, lamenting that they’d lied. He’s studied science and math extensively; in his mind the educators aren’t just lazy in how they express what to him is a very clean and clear discipline, they’re actually being untruthful.

Thankfully, while frustrating to navigate at first this isn’t always a negative trait. In matters of learning, it can be a great boon when they recall, clearly and precisely, advanced information. With so many aspects of school presenting as hurdles to overcome, having the ability to remember information so readily can give a much-needed boost to a child’s self-confidence and can help bring up grades.

No matter the situation — at home, school, or work — it is important to remember and honor the needs of the individual. Even if there’s a small detail off, the entire context can change for family members with Tourette.

As my husband reminds me frequently, “You can’t summarize the statements of someone with Tourette — you have to quote verbatim or you’re going to have a problem.

It’s always intriguing when science follows our personal experiences, and the very day after our dinner time discussion a study was published in Cortex magazine which investigated the link between Tourette and procedural memory.

Procedural memory is essentially the memory of how to perform different actions like tying your shoes, riding a bike, cooking spaghetti or how one uses language. The full study is available here for those who are interested, but the gist of it is this: Scientists came to the conclusion that procedural memory is enhanced in those with Tourette Syndrome, including the procedural memory of language.

What makes the study really interesting is that the researchers shared the opinion that, “…altered motor functions can lead not only to impaired but also to enhanced memory and language processes.” It goes on to state that “The evidence presented here, together with previous findings suggesting enhanced grammar processing in TS, underscore the dependence of language on a system that also subserves visuomotor sequencing.”

While there’s still more research to be done, the implications of this study are huge for understanding how those with Tourette Syndrome view language. In the simplest terms, this study has found that those with Tourette have an enhanced memory for the processes of language, backing up my own family’s daily experiences. It also helps us know that our approach to the situations we find ourselves in as a result isn’t off base; while it can be frustrating at times to be careful with our choice of wording, over time it’s become second nature.

We’ve also learned to accept it as the superpower it can be; embracing it and allowing our family members to use it to their best advantage both in school and in everyday life. We also learned to hide the clocks. It makes for a much less stressful household.

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